It’s a place defined by a river, both physically and historically. Small streams start in the Appalachian Mountains, flowing east to form the North River, which runs past the town of Bridgewater. From there it forms the South Fork of the Shenandoah, flowing onto the Potomac and to the ocean. It was the river that gave the town of Bridgewater its birth, would later give the town its name and for over 200 years has helped shape the community on the southern edge of Rockingham County.
As European settlers made their way south through the Shenandoah Valley they encountered a myriad of streams, creeks and rivers in their path. Near the current location of Bridgewater there was a shallow area that could be crossed by wagon that later became known as McGill’s Ford. A ferry service was begun across the river about 1800 and the first bridge to cross the waters was built across about a decade later. In 1810 John Dinkle set up a mill on the river’s bank just down from the bridge and the community that grew up beside the river became known as “Dinkletown.” Harnessing the power of the river Dinkletown became a milling center, where raw materials, like lumber and grain, were turned into finished products.
In the early 19th century the local road system was primitive and slow and rivers were the fastest way to get goods to market. Flat-bottomed boats called “gundalows” plied the rivers of the Valley taking rural goods to larger urban markets. Dinkletown marked the most western navigable part of the North River. Farmers, miners, and trappers would bring their products to the town where it would be put on boats that followed the river’s course to Harpers Ferry and the nation’s capital. Dinkletown, which had both a bridge and a port to load the boats, became known as “Bridgeport.”
In 1835 the town was chartered and the name “Bridgewater” was chosen. The bridges that had become the town’s namesake would be destroyed several times by both nature and by man. One was burnt in 1862 during the Civil War. But the river crossing was important and a structure kept being rebuilt to cross it. The covered bridge completed in 1878 was considered, at the time, to be the longest single span covered bridge in the world at 250 feet long. The covered bridge was replaced by a steel bridge in 1917, which was in turn replaced by the current concrete structure in 1955.
As the town grew so did its industry. Bridgewater continued to be a popular spot for milling operation, where they could harness the river’s power and have a convenient means to transport their goods to market. The town was also home to several foundries and a plow factory.
By the late 19th century another entity was forming that would come to define the town of Bridgewater. Just across the river near Spring Creek a teacher’s school was founded in 1880. By 1882 the school had grown and moved into town and was chartered as a college in 1889. The institution would later take on the town’s name as its own. Today Bridgewater College is a private four-year liberal arts college that is home to 1,800 students. Its presence not only gives Bridgewater a “college town” feel, it also brings NCAA sporting events, along with world renowned art, music and speakers to the community.
The town of Bridgewater still attracts industry. Today the businesses within the town’s limits include a Perdue Farms facility, a Marshall’s distribution center and Shickel Corporation, a metal fabrication business that started out in the foundries along the river in the 19th century.
Bridgewater is currently a town of 5,700 inhabitants. The town is governed by a seven person elected town council headed by a mayor working with a full-time town superintendent. The town has kept both its government and its public spaces accessible to its citizens. The town maintains 10 parks, including several along the North River, as well as playgrounds and baseball fields for its extensive little league programs. Streets through town are pedestrian and bicycle friendly making access to these public spaces convenient.
Bridgewater’s recreational opportunities extend beyond the town’s boundaries. The town sits miles away from the George Washington National Forest in the Appalachian Mountains with its hiking and mountain biking trails. The small streams to the south and west of town that feed into North River have become renowned around the country for their fly fishing. The North River itself provides a place for swimming, boating and fishing right beside town.
Bridgewater combines its small town feel with modern conveniences. The town has both volunteer fire and rescue squads and is serviced by reliable cable television, high-speed internet and cell phone providers. There are both public and private school options within five miles, including a private elementary school within the town limits. The city of Harrisonburg, the county seat of Rockingham with a population of 40,000, is about four miles away with retail, medical and educational services.
Today the town that grew up beside the North River is still growing. At one time the town’s bridge marked the place where people would cross to new frontiers and a different tomorrow. Today the town itself is like that bridge. It is a place that provides people with opportunities and the chance to build a better future for themselves.